Making a PhD Work Whilst Working – Confessions of a Part-Time Student |
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Posted on 12 Apr '18

Making a PhD Work Whilst Working – Confessions of a Part-Time Student

A PhD is challenging enough, but what if you're combining part-time research with full-time work? Arthur Krebbers successfully completed his doctorate whilst working a demanding job in banking. Here he shares some tips for other students.

“So how exactly did you get your PhD part-time?” I am sometimes asked. “Simple, I just didn’t watch any TV for 6 years” is my first, facetious, response.

Then when someone digs deeper I gladly share the full story of how I completed a PhD whilst working a demanding banking job. Here I’ve distilled this experience into 5 takeaways, which I hope will help and inspire you to also pursue a PhD alongside your day job.

#1 "That's impossible"

First objective: find a willing supervisor. This quest began by casting a wide net - my first ‘research sample’ was a database of all finance professors across 25 universities in Western Europe. Their background, research focus, publications.

My initial advances to this longlist were mostly repelled. “What you are looking to do is simply impossible” claimed one London-based academic: “I tried to oversee a part-time PhD degree, with a brilliant student. It all began very well, but after a few months they just couldn’t keep up. Too much pressure from their work.”

Undeterred, I kept looking. I eventually located a professor at the University of Strathclyde whose research interests closely matched my own. And, at least as important, he was supportive of the part-time endeavour, seeing it as a great way to develop innovative research with real-world relevance.

I’ve found that the strength of the supervisor-student relationship is critical to the success of a part-time PhD. You should not settle for second best.

Lesson: Carefully scout out a like-minded and supportive supervisor.

#2 “On slide 3, how my PhD will benefit our company”

In my case, studying part-time didn’t just mean ensuring I could complete my research project. It also meant making sure I could remain committed to my job.

So, how do you tell your manager you’d like to get a PhD ‘on the side’? Professional services staff like myself convert their pleas into flashy PowerPoint presentations. That became my modus operandi. I crafted a mini-pitchbook, anticipating the key questions I would get:

  1. What is my proposal? (i.e. what would I like my employer to provide me)
  2. How will this benefit my professional development?
  3. How will this benefit the business?

After several meetings, a bespoke training agreement was written up, covering such areas as financial support, study leave and contingency scenarios (i.e. what happens if I leave my job halfway into the degree). I was ready for lift-off.

Lesson: If necessary, be ready to craft a clear business rationale for your employer to support your PhD

#3 Taking the red pill

Before I could hope to lay claim to a doctorate, I had to transition from a practitioner’s analytical skill set into an academic’s research approach. At the University of Strathclyde this is achieved by requiring budding PhD students to first complete a Masters in Research (MRes) degree in Research Methods.

Initially this felt like taking the red pill and entered Wonderland: challenging all the scientific and professional truths I’d held during my professional work. “How do we know equity markets are ‘rising’ today? And what can we truly say about this thing we call ‘Equity’?”

I was exposed to a whole array of methodologies – the good, the bad and the plain silly. One lecturer had just completed his in-depth academic study of the psychology of visiting UK family hotels. His approach? His diarised reviews of several B&B’s – each inner thought, feeling and observation being amalgamated into a dataset.

My own research skills were mostly developed I learned most through trial and error. Browsing Sciencedirect with an ever-changing assembly of search terms. Tinkering with different econometric and statistical models. Drafting and redrafting text to get the correct academic tone.

Lesson: Academic and professional knowledge can inform each other during a part-time PhD. And research methods are sometimes self-taught

#4 Getting a second manager

I did not always find it easy to cope with a barrage of academic directives on a Saturday morning. “Please re-run all the regressions, with clustered standard errors.” “Add a reference for this claim you make – make sure it’s from a proper journal.”

One particularly blue weekend I felt like the hamster on a running wheel - rushing, rushing and getting nowhere. I consulted a mentor who had recently completed his PhD. His advice was very poignant:

  1. Your PhD supervisors are actually your managers. You’re only done when they say you’re done
  2. A PhD is highly iterative: you will often feel like you’re going in circles

Lesson: Be comfortable with iterative processes and having an extra manager!

#5 Eating an elephant

I started building momentum. By divvying up this Herculean task in manageable chunks I was able to make tangible progress over weekends and the occasional weekday evening. As one family member told me: “If you want to eat an elephant, you do it one bite at a time.” One hypothesis, one paragraph, one regression.

It all culminated in the viva. After the discussion, and a brief wait outside the room, I was summoned back inside with three words: “Congratulations Dr Krebbers!”. I felt ecstatic! I had achieved what some professors had dubbed “the Impossible” – with the help of some old-fashioned grit. All it took was careful planning, diligence and perseverance. Three skills you can also master - to get a doctorate!

Lesson: Give yourself manageable deadlines and you can achieve the impossible

Arthur Krebbers completed his PhD in 2016 before going on to found the website to advise and assist other students.

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Last Updated: 12 April 2018